Texas was close to being a middle-of-the-pack rushing unit until the recent outburst. Now, Texas is averaging right at the 200 rushing ypg that coach Mack Brown has typically set as the standard for his offense. The Horns are averaging 198.7 rushing ypg (NCAA No. 23). RB Jamaal Charles, on average, has been responsible for 119.2 of those yards. If he stays healthy, the junior is a virtual lock to win the conference rushing title.
One could argue that the numbers have come against a really bad rush defense (Nebraska) and a really bad pass defense (Oklahoma State). Save for Oklahoma and TCU, the other defense's Texas faced this season haven't exactly been a murderer's row. Still, the rushing offense had been, at best, inconsistent until Texas reclaimed the play that Vince Young ran to perfection on the way to a 24-1 record in 2004-05.
"We put it back in just before Nebraska," WR Nate Jones said. "That's like our bread and butter."
Truth be told, Texas ran it here-and-there prior to Nebraska but with hardly the same results. What's changed? More than anything else, what has opened up the Zone Read for the Longhorns?
"It's Colt's ability to keep the ball and run," said Jones. "If our quarterback can get 100 yards and Jamaal can get 180, we might as well take advantage of it."
Texas had eight Zone Read rushes against Nebraska and about that many at Oklahoma State. Colt McCoy kept on three of them against the Cowboys and eventually finished as the game's second-leading rusher, netting 106 yards on 16 carries. In fact, McCoy is Texas' second-leading rusher on the season with 333 yards. However, if you calculate his numbers strictly as a runner (i.e., minus sack yardage), McCoy has run for 433 yards on 60 carries (7.2 ypc). Most of those yards are off-schedule, but it at least has the cumulative effect of forcing defenses to account for McCoy's mobility.
A QB who is at least a running threat is the difference between the effectiveness of the Zone Read from "what we did not get out of it last year," offensive coordinator Greg Davis said.
"He doesn't have to be a 15 times per game threat," Davis said. "But, when he's a threat. somebody out of the forcing unit has to be assigned to him or it's just a huge play. When someone is assigned to the quarterback, that's one less person that's assigned to the running back. When you're really good at the Zone Read, then someone from the secondary has to be aware of it. And that's when really big plays come in."
A point of emphases during spring training and August camp was to unbridle Colt, if you will, and establish him more as a runner. It sent chills down the spines of many'a Longhorn fan who questioned McCoy's durability. Yet, a beefed-up McCoy announced three months ago that the sole purpose of his 10 extra pounds of lean muscle was his determination to run the ball.
"I believe all quarterbacks come to college with the idea that they want to sit in the pocket and never leave," Davis said. "Then, as they play, they see how productive it is to make plays off-schedule. They see how many extra set of downs you can get when a quarterback leaves the pocket. That's part of it, and Colt is making quicker decisions. There's a thin line between sitting in the pocket and leaving."
McCoy is typically one to deflect praise. The play's success, he believes, is indicative of the offensive line's maturation and getting Charles into space.
"My personal opinion is that a lot of teams tried to put a ton of pressure on our young offensive line," McCoy said. "We're now at a point where we can run the ball into the type of blitz instead of having to audible and get into a pass formation. When Jamaal breaks through against a blitz, there's nobody there. He's one-on-one with a safety or a cornerback. We always like that match-up."
Even the mere threat of a Zone Read affects the angles that linebackers and DBs take on their first step. But there is no denying that the scheme has breathed new life into Charles. The analogy may be premature, but the past two weeks is at least reminiscent of the manner in which the Zone Read significantly increased RB Cedric Benson's production when coaches went with scheme in mid-2003.
"There's no question in my mind that Jamaal is running more down-hill the past couple of weeks," Davis said. "Even when the big plays aren't coming, he's making four and five yards. All those things help."
Texas ran eight play-action passes off the Zone Read Saturday; the result was eight completions, including "one to the other team," McCoy smiled, referencing the wicked hit against Nate Jones that dislodged the football into the waiting arms of Jacob Lacey.
"You can do a lot of things off the Zone Read," Jones added. "You can do a lot play-action and bootlegs. What it does is bites down the linebacker and leaves the middle of the field open. Every time we did the play-action fake (off the Zone Read), there was a big hole where the linebackers are supposed to be."
The quick-snap counter has also been good for Charles. It was the play that scored Charles from 18 yards out to open the fourth quarter as well as his subsequent 75-yard TD run. But it was the Zone Read that ignited Texas' 14-point comeback against Nebraska; it's also what finally got Texas on the board in Stillwater after falling behind 21-0. Charles' 22-yard run early in the second quarter was off the Zone Read.
"The linebackers have got to respect the Zone Read now," McCoy said. "When you get the linebackers to bite, it opens up the Zone Read. I think this will play a big part in the rest of the season for us."